By Rev Robin Martin
I love the psalm for today, especially the first couple of verses. Listen again: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. I think the reason these words touch me so is that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more aware of my mood swings…which is not a bad thing. It’s not that I’m generally given to particularly sharp changes in how I feel, but I’ve become much more attuned to the shifting. And I’m much clearer than I used to be that no mood or feeling lasts forever, especially the extreme ones like despair and euphoria. The upshot is that I’m more likely to endure depression and enjoy happiness and contentment when they’re present without letting my whole life become defined by their presence or absence.
This may sound kind of obvious, but it seems worth noting because there’s a tendency in many, if not all, of us to universalize how we feel in a given moment…especially when things are not going well. This psalm is a song of restoration. The people of Israel have been in exile where they suffered both the anguish of being forced from their homeland and mistreatment at the hands of their captors. But now the Lord has come to their rescue. So before breaking into praise for all God has done for them, the psalmist recalls that the time of shifting from anguish and oppression to joy and laughter was like being in a dream. We know this feeling. We know about it because, when things abruptly go from good to bad or from bad to good in your life and mine, we often experience a sense of dreamlike unreality.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the community of Christians in that city to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” Sounds great doesn’t it? Sounds like the kind of people we aspire to be by gathering here week after week. So why is it so darn hard to do? I don’t know about you, but this week just past was a pretty good one for me. I feel expectant about the upcoming celebration of Christmas. On several occasions I’ve had rich and rewarding conversations with people who are in a great place and time in their lives. That’s always fun. But just as importantly, I’ve also been with some other people who are struggling with spiritual or emotional or physical difficulties. To be with people who are in the midst of hard times and witness the courage and grace with which they cope is a humbling privilege that I cherish. And there are lots of other things, both big and small, here in the parish and in my own life, that are going remarkably well.
But interspersed with all the good were things like hearing about the precipitous decline in health of one of my beloved former parishioners and the fact that he has decided not to seek further treatment. I did not find myself in the mood for rejoicing as I thought about his intractable suffering and approaching death. Then there was the nurse at my doctor’s office who complained bitterly to a co-worker…in my presence…about having to stop her “work” to give me the inoculation which I needed and for which I had made an appointment as instructed. I can tell you, I did not find myself feeling any need to give thanks in that particular circumstance…except maybe for the fact that I didn’t throttle her. And perhaps like you, I definitely felt too pressed for time most of the week to be praying without ceasing.
But of course Paul is not exhorting the people of Thessalonika about how they should feel. He’s not telling them to rejoice and pray and give thanks when the mood strikes them. In fact, he doesn’t say a thing about feelings or moods. He’s not even talking about attitudes here. He uses verbs…action verbs…to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. He’s saying that what matters is what we do and how we behave because that’s what has the power to shape how we feel, the moods that envelop us, the attitudes we hold. Over time, the discipline of always rejoicing, in good times and bad, will literally transform us into joyful people. Over time, attentiveness to prayer will make conversation with God as automatic as breathing in and breathing out, and it will shape our conversations with one another. Over time, giving thanks in all circumstances will strengthen and expand our capacity for openness and generosity toward others. Paul is saying that what matters is what we do and how we behave, because over time these determine who we become.
Paul being Paul, after all this encouragement toward positive action, he adds a caution. “Do not quench the Spirit,” he admonishes. As I’ve thought about how I quench the Spirit in my own life, it seems to me that the “quenching” often involves resisting and acquiescing. I throw cold water on the movement of the Spirit in my life whenever I resist the impulse to do something good. That impulse toward good can run the gamut all the way from helping someone in need of my time and skills and resources to stopping for a few minutes and being still, centering myself in the presence of God. The resistance I feel is not so much an unwillingness to do what God calls me to do, but more a dismissal of the impulse as impossible or impractical or too costly. And frankly, sometimes I simply ignore the impulse toward good that rises in me out of sheer indifference. I really believe that resisting the Spirit in our lives is often deeply rooted in the most mundane realities and demands of our daily existence.
The interesting thing I discovered as I thought about all this is that when I acquiesce to what is not from the Spirit, what is not from God, what is sometimes clearly evil…when I acquiesce to what is not good, I do it for much the same reasons that cause me to resist doing what is good. Sometimes when I quell and repress the movement of the Spirit against the things that harm and destroy my fellow human beings and God’s world by tolerating their existence, it’s not because I approve. It’s because struggling against them seems hopeless or impractical or too costly. And sometimes I resist by being indifferent. I simply fail to care.
It is terribly difficult to do the things Paul exhorts us to do and to refrain from doing the thing he admonishes us not to do. And that’s why we pray this day that God’s mighty power will be stirred up as the Divine Presence comes into our midst. Because we’re so lax about rejoicing and praying and giving thanks, because we’re so apt to try and quench the Spirit that is in us and around us we need help. Maybe, if we’re open to it, the bountiful grace and mercy of God will be our guide and our stay as we navigate this next week and all the rest of our lives. Maybe, with just a little cooperation on our part, God will help us to become the joyful, prayerful, thankful people we were created to be.